News

3D Printing – A Game Changing Technology

Imagine a world where you can create any object, in a matter of hours, from the comfort of your own home or place of business. All you need is a design file, a computer controlled three-dimensional (3D) printer and printing materials.

This cutting edge transformative technology is called 3D printing. It is still somewhat in its infancy, however, it is predicted to bring about possibility and challenges with the potential to affect several facets of legislation, at both the European Union level and local level.

The European Parliament (EP) has recently issued working documents specifically addressing the challenges 3D printing raises in the fields of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and Civil Liability. The EP identified two main reasons:

  1. As regards intellectual property, 3D printing raises issues in view of the possibility of customising an object; and
  2. As regards civil liability, 3D printing raises issues in view of how the production chain operates.

Intellectual Property

When everyone has access to their own personal means of production, intellectual property becomes more vulnerable than ever. Since the object being made has been digitally designed, the possibilities for creating, modifying and applying it are endless.

The EP’s working document makes reference to a report drawn up by a review commission on 3D printing and copyright for France’s Higher Council for Literary and Artistic Property, wherein the legal experts considered that 3D printing has not had a dramatic impact on copyright to date.

The EP also stated that a 3D file can be considered as a work and will be protected as such. Nevertheless, in the short and medium term a main challenge is to involve professional copyright intermediaries more closely. This primarily involves online 3D file-sharing platforms. 3D scanning services and software as well as 3D printing providers are also involved, which in turn should systematically draw attention to the need to respect intellectual property, and include in created 3D files, certain elements which allow them to be traced or alternatively to ensure that printed objects are traceable by embedding a marker (DNA).

Although at present 3D printing has not caused a huge problem with intellectual property rights, when this technology triggers a revolution in the market, the present intellectual property legal framework which implicates copyright, trademark, patent and design protection will be considered somewhat outdated when one considers the nature of this cutting-edge, rapidly-developing technology.

A future revision of Directive 2004/48/EC on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, has been announced by the European Commission for the current term. This stepping stone will be particularly important and provide more information and clarity on the subject.

Civil Liability

With regards to civil liability, the fact that 3D printing combines digital and physical aspects changes the way the production chain operates: there is the manufacturer of the 3D printer, the producer of the software running the 3D printer or the person creating the object by letting the software instruct the 3D printer. The online availability of files further heralds the advent of public participatory innovation, since open-source files can be freely modified, improved and customised. This so-called new production chain leads to a lack of clarity and difficulties in identifying the person responsible should an object created using 3D printing technology cause damage. Furthermore, it remains to be established whether 3D printer manufacturers should have greater liability than manufacturers of other tools or machines that can be used to create objects.

The EP’s working document states that anticipating problems relating to accident liability and intellectual property infringement will require the adoption of new legislation at EU level or the tailoring of existing laws to the specific case of 3D printing.

In its working document, the EP continued on to list a number of possible solutions already available to address the issues of intellectual property and civil liability, which it opines, do not appear to be wholly satisfactory on their own. These include:

  1. Creating a global database of printable objects to control reproductions of copyright-protected 3D objects;
  2. Introducing a legal limit on the number of private copies of 3D objects to prevent illegal reproductions; or
  3. Imposing a tax on 3D printing to compensate intellectual property right-holders for the loss suffered as a result of private copies being made of objects in 3D.

For more information on the legal implications of 3D Printing and the protection of Intellectual Property Rights, or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact Dr Ian Gauci on igauci@gtgadvocates.com or Dr Cherise Abela Grech on cabelagrech@gtgadvocates.com

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to impart advice and readers are asked to seek verification of statements made before acting on them.